Archive for the 'Culture and Society' Category

Nov 21 2014

How to Choose Science Advisers

Published by under Culture and Society

I recently discussed the decision of the EU president to eliminate the post of the EUC science adviser. It seems that a major factor in eliminating the position was the unpopular pro-GMO views of the person holding the post, Professor Anne Glover.

Now the US Congress has just passed a bill that would change the way appointments are made to the science advisory panel of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). Two aspects of the bill are receiving critical attention, however, reading the text of the bill itself makes it unclear to me what the net effect would be.

The first is a provision allowing onto the advisory panel experts with ties to the industry that is being regulated. The White House claims that this provision would, “negatively affect the appointment of experts and would weaken the scientific independence and integrity of the SAB.”

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. said to the bill’s sponsor, “I get it, you don’t like science, and you don’t like science that interferes with the interests of your corporate clients. But we need science to protect public health and the environment.”

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Nov 18 2014

Perception vs Facts

I was recently in a conversation with someone about the alleged threat that Muslims present to Western societies. I made the point that not all Muslims are radicals, and it’s not valid to condemn the entire group based upon the actions of their most radical members. They countered that “90%” of Muslims were radicals.

Obviously, they made this figure up on the spot for rhetorical effect. But this was their perception, shaped, very likely, by the type of news they generally consume.

In addition to the biasing effect that media can have on our perceptions of reality, there is a day-to-day subtle confirmation bias that colors our perceptions. It is very true that “believing is seeing” – we tend to notice, remember, and accept observations that seem to confirm (or can be interpreted to confirm) our internal model of reality. We tend to ignore or (more often) dismiss observations that seem to contradict our internal narrative. They are reinterpreted, or treated as “exceptions” (assuming the rule to which this new evidence would be an exception).

The good news is that today we have rapid access to objective factual information like never before. I love whipping out my smartphone and fact-checking in the middle of a conversation. This access to information should also have a humbling effect, and should motivate people to question the “facts” that they have rattling around in their brains. Don’t trust anything unless you have a recent and reliable reference.

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Nov 17 2014

Politics vs Science

What happens when your political or ideological views are contradicted by the consensus of scientific opinion regarding the evidence? It appears that a common reaction (depending on how strongly held the ideological views are) is to reject science. Not only do people reject the science specific to their issue, they reject science itself. They reason that if science disagrees with a view they strongly hold (and therefore “know” to be true) then science must be broken.

The latest example of this comes from the European Union. The role of chief science adviser, held by Professor Anne Glover, was recently axed by EU President Jean-Claude Juncker. There are conflicting reports as to the exact reason, but reading through everything it seems pretty clear to me. Her advice on the science, specifically with regard to genetically modified organisms (GMO) was politically inconvenient.

According to speeches given by Glover, her position, created at the beginning of 2012, was always a bit contentious. She said in a speech in New Zealand:

“I would say in-house politics did hamper the efficiency of the role. Many people in the Commission simply did not want a Chief Scientific Adviser, so it was a little bit difficult. I did have the necessary independence but I was often excluded from the essential information.”

She also recounted.

“I turned up and it was almost as if they had forgotten I was coming,” she said, adding that she did not meet her immediate boss – the then EU President, José Manuel Barroso – until day 51 because he “had other things on his mind”.

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Oct 28 2014

What Americans Believe

Surveys are always problematic because they are subject to interpretation, the precise phrasing of questions, sampling bias, and perhaps hidden assumptions on the part of those taking the survey. The results of any single survey, therefore, should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, they can provide a useful snapshot (if done well) of the current culture. 

Skeptics are always interested in what the general public “believes.” The term “belief” is itself problematic, and when used in a survey it is subject to interpretation by those taking the survey. I am not one of those who object to ever using the term “belief.” It is a reasonable short hand for, “I find the totality of available evidence to be compelling,” or “I accept the scientific consensus on this issue,” at least in informal writing or conversation.

In a survey, however, I would prefer any questions about what people “believe” to be replaced by, or at least supplemented by, statements about what the scientific evidence says.

In any case, we have another recent survey about what Americans believe, from Chapman University. The survey covers a lot of territory, from religious affiliation and practice, to what people fear, to what they believe about scientific and paranormal topics. You can download the entire 73-page report of the results from the link above.

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Sep 08 2014

Internet Echochambers

I recently came across a post on the skeptic subreddit pointing to the rules of the 9/11 truther subreddit:

Welcome to 911truth! The purpose of this subreddit is to present and discuss evidence showing that the US Government’s version of the events of 9/11 cannot possibly be true. Submissions or comments supporting the official version, including links to sites purporting to “debunk” the 9/11 Truth Movement (depending on context), are considered off-topic here.

Rules:

  1. Stay on topic. Off topic comments are subject to removal.

Rule #7 also made me smile:

7. No caps lock.

This is the double-edged sword of the internet – it allows for unprecedented on-demand access to incredible information, but that information is biased.

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Aug 05 2014

Persistent Anti-GMO Myths

One persistent theme in my writing about scientific topics is that, to optimally serve our own interests, public discourse and decision-making on issues that are highly scientific should be informed by the best evidence and scientific analysis available, not on lies, myths, misconceptions, or raw ideology. I am therefore attracted to topics where I think the myth to fact ratio is particularly high.

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) is one such issue. The propaganda machine seems to be way out in front of the more sober voices trying to correct the record and focus the discussion on reality. I also see GMO as the ideological flip side to global warming denial.  In the latter case we seen industry and free-market ideologues sowing confusion and misinformation. They also do the ideology shuffle – a dance in which, whenever they are nailed by the facts on one point, they state that their objection is really based on some other point. They never really acknowledge the point, just side-step it.

Anti-GMO activists, in my experience, operate the same way. They have marshaled every possible point they can against GMO, whether or not they are true or valid. When one such point is exposed as a myth, they simply slide over to some other point as their “real” motivation for opposition, but never give any ground.

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Oct 29 2013

Gender – It’s Complicated

Published by under Culture and Society

A new study by gender researcher, Laurel Westbrook, explores attitudes toward gender determination in various contexts. The issue of gender is interesting partly because it is one of those topics that at first seems fairly straightforward when in fact it is quite complex, not only biologically, but ethically.

By now many people are familiar with the distinction between sex and gender, sex referring to biological characteristic relative to male and female, and gender being a social construct relative to masculine and feminine. In both cases the first thing we must realize is to avoid the false dichotomy as sex and gender occur along a spectrum, and are not binary.

Sex

Biological sex in humans is determined by several factors. Developmentally there are two main factors, genetics and hormonal environment. The system is binary in that there appears to be a female developmental pathway and a male developmental pathway, and most individuals do end up unambiguously toward one end or the other of this axis.

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Oct 03 2013

Politics, Science Rejection, and Conspiracy Thinking

Even among self-identified skeptics and critical thinkers, there is the full spectrum of political ideology, and this varying world view does seem to color certain opinions. In my experience in the community, most skeptics eventually get to a similar place with regard to politically-charged scientific topics (logic and evidence do hold sway in the end), but they certainly start in different places. There is also the occasional skeptic who, while displaying critical thinking in most areas, retains a sacred cow or two associated with their political world view.

A recent study explores the issue of political worldview, conspiracy thinking, and the acceptance or rejection of certain scientific topics. Stephen Lewandowsky et al published the study in PLOSOne, The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science

The study essentially looks for association between a free market ideology, conservatism, and conspiracy thinking as these world views relate to acceptance or rejection of vaccine safety, global warming, and acceptance of GMO (genetically modified organisms). A number of interesting and not-so-surprising findings emerged.

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Jun 06 2013

Star Trek – Into Bad Science

Published by under Culture and Society

On the SGU this week, the episode that will be released on Saturday June 8th, we do an extended review of the new Star Trek movie, Into Darkness (STID). so – this is a warning to SGU listeners, if you want to hear the episode without spoilers, see the movie before Saturday (or whenever you typically listen to the episode).

We talk about the science in the movie, the characters, the writing, its overall quality as a film and how well it lives up to the Star Trek franchise.

Here I am just going to delve into some aspects of the science in the movie. I am a fan of science fiction, and I am unapologetic in desiring good science in my science fiction. I have no problem suspending my disbelief, and allow writers to invent new science and technology as needed for the story, but there are limits. The unwritten rule-of-thumb in science fiction writing is that you get one huge gimmie, but not more than that.

Regardless of your preference for hard science fiction, there is no reason for gratuitously bad science in science fiction. Science howlers can take you out of a movie, it’s lazy writing, and often that also translates to bad storytelling.

Overall STID was not bad with the science, but there were a few annoying moments, and one unnecessary howler that did immediately take me out of the movie.

(Spoilers below the fold)

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